Posted by: Scott | September 14, 2010

Murphy’s Law Month

Have you ever had one of those “Murphy’s Law’ Months? I think I am having one right now.

This is what I feel like right now!!!

#1) I am having a rough go in terms of finding stable, long-term work. Always an issue when you have bills to pay.

#2) On the matter of bills to pay, isn’t it usually the case that when you have cash-flow issues, you also notice that the number of things that suddenly need attention start screaming for it? By that, I mean appliances or tools that decide to break just when you can least afford to fix/replace them. Like the squeegee I was trying to wash the balcony window with yesterday. Plus, I have another new bill, a rather large one, on my horizon I wasn’t expecting (read: hoping to NOT have to deal with) until I was fully employed. My new bill: well, that’s

#3) My computer died this past weekend. You never realize just how hard it could be to live without technology until you can’t use it anymore. Especially if you are trying to write a blog, or finish the novel you have just gotten your second wind with.

October cannot come soon enough!

Adendum (September 16): ML #4 – my watch strap broke!! 

A few days ago, I (finally) registered “I Can Explain” (it’s a three-page skit poking fun at celebrity culture) as copyright on the Canadian Intellectual Property Office web site. It cost me fifty bucks! Fifty bucks! Artists are supposed to suffer for their craft, and all that, but there should at least be a sliding scale for artistic copyright. I mean I don’t have a problem shelling out fifty big ones for copyrighting “Devil’s Highway” (an in-progress novel which I should also register soon), but fifty smackers for a three-page skit? Sure gives credence to the notion of the ‘starving artist’. Sheesh!

Posted by: Scott | June 16, 2010

The Worthiness of Being Critical…

It’s funny how, in the so-called triumph of the marketplace, our market economy and political system more and more closely resemble those of the old Soviet Union with its sluggishness, its inability handle criticism of its faults, and its unwillingness to consider alternatives. They’re probably also just as doomed to the dustbin of history. Time to think critically, to consider alternatives before the ship runs aground for good!

As of this Friday morning, June 18th, I will no longer be a university undergrad. Time to be piped in by the six-time defending world champion SFU Pipe Band! (Did I mention I like bagpipes? My Mom’s Scottish Heraldry?)

After the bagpipes, I will finally have that coveted piece of paper called a Bachelor’s Degree, for what it’s worth. The process of earning this degree has been one of the most challenging and yet personally rewarding experiences of my life. The cost has been high, in time, money and sometimes stress. (Financially, I’m less badly off, though, than many of my classmates, so I really can’t complain…too much.) But, overall, it has been worth the effort.

There’s that word again: worth. And there is my question of the moment: what exactly is a university degree worth these days? Some would say not much. Many governments today place less emphasis on the value of such a piece of paper, instead favouring institutions that teach what they refer to as ‘marketable skills’. University programs, especially those that emphasize the humanities like philosophy, anthropology and political economy, I’m told, don’t teach enough of those marketable skills, and therefore receive less funding than those which produce hard research data. And so we have eighteen-year-olds entering university to become blood-spatter experts and economists just as the markets implode, oil gushes in all the wrong places and Canada’s crime rate falls. Yes, falls. But, I guess philosophy just isn’t as sexy as criminology. (Too bad those CSI-wannabes never met my first-year philosophy professor; she was pretty hot!)

But what are ‘marketable skills’? The most common definition I hear is one of skills that make you competitive in the marketplace. And just what are those, the Minister of Silly Thoughts so innocently asks? What skills do employers seem to want these days? If you look at companies like Lehman Brothers or British Petroleum, their idea of marketable skills would appear to include the ability to A) avoid asking critical questions, B) avoid questioning authority, and C) evade responsibility when something goes wrong, as will inevitably occur when no one does A or B. I suspect that for many Fortune 500 companies, the skills listed above would describe their ideal employee!

Same goes for governments. Our esteemed leaders in Ottawa would rather not have a bunch of nosy low-level bureaucrats and idealistic junior politicians questioning the seeming contradiction between Canada’s vaunted human rights record and recent revelations of Generals and Defence Ministers looking the other way while Afghan prisoners captured by our military are tortured. Damn that pesky Geneva Convention!

So, Honourable Minister of Silly Thoughts, you ask, what would be your idea of ‘marketable skills’? How about A, B, and C above for a start? But wait. There is something more, a foundation underlying A, B and C that makes them possible. University of Chicago Philosopher Martha Nussbaum was interviewed in last weekend’s Globe and Mail, and was basically asked the same question. She says that universities, politicians – and society as a whole – have undervalued the ability to think critically. Critical thinking means to analyze, apply and evaluate information; it means to come to one’s own conclusions and to defend them. In the world we live in today, critical thinking can especially mean speaking truth to power, to exposing what is wrong for all to see.

The trouble is that those very skills are what universities today are putting less and less emphasis on. Why? That’s because ‘we’ don’t think much of philosophy, anthropology or political economy anymore. But what is philosophy after all but the study of ethics, reason and real knowledge? What is anthropology but the study of how and why people act the way they do? And what is the forgotten art of political economy but the study of the nuts and bolts of capitalism and its alternatives? (Yes, Virginia, there are alternatives, if but we imagine them.)

Case in point. Last blog posting, I mentioned the trouble with gentrification’s effect on housing affordability in what is arguably one of the world’s hottest real estate markets: Vancouver. The undergrad research project that I also mentioned looked into the question of making energy efficiency and green building technologies more accessible (that is, affordable) for all. The problem is that environmentally-sustainable housing is considered a premium, a new niche in the marketplace, which means developers can charge pretty much any price they want for it, and get it. Not exactly affordable and sustainable housing for the masses. Time to think critically, look for alternatives to the market that bring people together.

What my research turned up was this interesting concept called a community land trust, or CLT. Basically, a CLT is a non-profit agency that owns parcels of land which are leased out for a small fee to its members: individuals, families, and in some cases small businesses. Members in turn pay their mortgage only on the value of the building sitting on the leased land, not the land itself. My research found, from a CLT in Portland, OR, that a new homeowner buying through a CLT could save 15-50% on the purchase price of their home. What’s more, a CLT as non-profit developer can promote sustainability through common, innovative design and/or education campaigns for members (the catch: participation in membership activities is mandatory), allowing for community-wide economies of scale. In this way, more people can afford to live with reduced carbon footprints while not impoverishing themselves.

The other thing I like about community land trusts is the emphasis on participation. Yes, it’s true you could find some antisocial people in groups like this, but for the most part, a community of owners will recognize how much they have at stake in their community, and act accordingly. This is good for everyone: more community interaction, less crime (read Jane Jacobs for proof) and a stronger community spirit. Where does the marketplace do all that? Until we are truly ready for the really big step – an alternative to speculation-based pricing for what is really a basic human right – CLTs are least a step on the good path.

Here is the URL for our reports, with mine on community land trusts listed under “Community Economic Development – Urban Land Assembly” in red. The executive summary is only four pages long, but you’re welcome to read the full report.

http://www.sfu.ca/cscd/academic-programs/student-projects/geog-449-spring-2010/

You see, in the hands and mind of a skilled critical thinker, a university degree can be a worthwhile, if not dangerous, weapon!

Meanwhile, it’s summer, and (bagpipe) music is in the air!

Posted by: Scott | April 28, 2010

There goes my neighbourhood…

Feeding the hungry backhoe...

Two weeks ago, a house was torn down on my block. There was nothing particularly special about the house, or any other house on that side of the street. But it appeared to be in good condition, thus my surprise when I heard and saw the house rapidly devoured by a backhoe that was almost as big! But, as market forces would have it, a “new” house often sells for more than an old one, or so I’m told, and so a perfectly good – and likely more affordable than new – house gets the giant backhoe treatment. I don’t know why I’m making such a fuss about this. I couldn’t afford the old house even if I wanted to buy it; I was priced out of Vancouver’s housing ‘market’ a long time ago. I’ll talk more about the affordability issue in a future post. Please read on.

One particular problem I have with the ‘backhoe-meets-house’ way of removing an old structure is its emphasis on speed and waste. Buildings can be taken down differently, in way that would mean a lot less material going in the landfill. Those building materials could then be re-used by organizations like Habitat for Humanity, or anyone wanting to do an inexpensive reno job on their current abode. And, taking a house down piece-by-piece employs more people. But that of course would take just too much time (and cost the property owner too much money), and we can’t hold up the invisible hand of the real estate market, now, can we?

A couple of weeks earlier, a fellow blogger lamented about the gentrification of her childhood home in New York City. Her reminisces struck a chord, reminding me of places I grew up around, as well as some others – like that house down the block – that are endangered now. We here in North America tend to think that if something is old, we no longer need it. Tear it down! Then, you go through a neighbourhood you haven’t seen for a few weeks or months, and you notice a vacant lot or a hole in the ground where you just know a familiar place once proudly stood. If you’re like me, a piece of your past disappears with that…that…what-the-hell-was-it?

Some years ago, I went back to my old neighbourhood in North Burnaby to photograph the house I spent the first eleven years of my life growing up in, only to find it was gone (cue Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders). No more beer-bottle stucco to scrape my hands against; Mom loved me for that! No more willow tree in the front yard, filtering the light of a summer evening sunset. No more plastered-over hole in the dining room wall, demarcating where the exhaust pipe from a wood stove once connected to a chimney, rendered obsolete. (The house had been built around 1910, and a new kitchen and bathroom were added before my parents and sister moved in.) No more front porch that once received got the unsolicited attention of several thousand (yes, thousand) ladybugs one hot summer day. No more drain-hole at the basement entry where a wolf spider crawled over my foot when I was two. Or was I three? Damnit! Anyway, you get the idea. The house that replaced it is nothing special, but that’s probably what the property owner thought when they first looked at my old house.

Up the road from my old house is the Heights, a pretty typical suburban, working-to-middle-class neighbourhood on the way Downtown. It’s a collection of mostly 1- and 2-storey stores and offices that straddle Hastings St., surrounded by mostly single family and duplex houses, and most of those were built in the last fifty years. I’m fond of this area because my grandparents lived in the neighbourhood for many years, and a lot of my first experiences happened there. I saw my first movie in a two-screen theatre that still exists! There was a shoe store where they had one of those big glass cookie jars full of oatmeal cookies, to keep kids like me from getting bored and cranky. It always worked for me: in fact, I would sneak so many of those oatmeal cookies that I often barfed a few steps out the door! Guess why Mom stopped letting me wear my new shoes home?

Like other neighbourhoods in transition, there is a slow mixing of the new with the old in the Heights. There is a really innovative co-housing community right in the middle of the neighbourhood, and there is a small community garden for area residents. And then there is the return of the Swinging Girl – a mechanical neon light that marked a local children’s store (Helen’s). When the store owner retired a few years ago, the city purchased the sign, had it restored mechanically and its neon display altered slightly so it now reads ‘Heights’. The ‘Heights’ just wouldn’t be the ‘Heights’ without her.

The Heights' new/old neon mascot

My renewed interest in the Heights stems from my last project as a university undergrad. My class was tasked by provincial government officials to figure out how to take energy efficiency, urban agriculture, alternative transport and other ecological sustainability innovations successfully put to use in large-scale urban redevelopments and apply them to more typical suburban neighbourhoods like the Heights. No easy task. One important challenge is to make sustainability affordable for people at all income levels in North America, or the goal of reduced energy consumption and smaller carbon footprints will not be realized. (In a couple of weeks, I’ll set up a link to our final composite report, as well as my own report on community land trusts.)

Living at the gentrified "Big W": not a $1.49 day special anymore!

Farther down Hastings, my Mom often took me grocery shopping at the Woodward’s Food Floor downtown. The Woodward’s flagship store at Hastings and Abbott was the result of several additions grafted onto a much smaller original store, which dates back to 1908. With the Food Floor in the building’s basement, you ended up with an interesting assortment of low ceilings, narrow isles, dead ends, and a very uneven floor that sloped in the strangest places, which made racing shopping carts with my cousin all the more fun! Yes, we raced shopping carts – bashing into little old ladies, knocking over displays and the like – that is, until we heard the voice of God through the scratchy P.A. system:

“Attention! The two young men in Aisle 7. Yes, you. This is not Daytona! Stop racing those shopping carts right now!”

When Woodward’s went out of business in the early 1990s and its revolving neon ‘W’ went dark, it signalled the beginning of a really challenging period for residents of the surrounding Downtown Eastside, who relied on the store for its inexpensive groceries. It was a true anchor for the neighbourhood, and without it, the neighbourhood was set adrift. Derelict, abandoned buildings, combined with deinstitutionalized psych patients with no where to go, and plenty of cheap heroin, meth and crack, and you can guess the result. I really don’t know if it was the approaching Olympics or just a collective guilty conscience on the part of those in a position to make decisions, but finally a belated effort was launched to throw a lifeline to the floundering neighbourhood.

The recovery began where the decline started – at Woodward’s. The original building’s facade (the Downtown Woodward’s eventually grew to four times its original size) has been retained, and to connect with the past, a brand-new neon ‘W’ now adorns the complex. There’s even a mural-sized reproduction of a photograph in the central courtyard, depicting the infamous Gastown Riot in 1971, which occurred in part in the streets around Woodward’s. The mix of new and old is in some ways symbolic of the whole development, which includes a mix of market and social housing, a community resource centre, and a grocery store that is probably too expensive for most of the area’s current residents. I say ‘current’ because the Woodward’s rejuvenation was intended, at least in some peoples’ minds, to minimize gentrification, not encourage it. Thus, the jury’s still out on Woodward’s, and whether the Welfare Wednesday crowd can continue to afford to live around there. The problem is, they have no where else to go: it’s too expensive for them to live anywhere else in what is reportedly the world’s hottest real estate market.

As for me, I miss the Christmas displays in the store’s large front windows (now a bank – boring), and of course, those uneven basement floors.

Posted by: Scott | April 28, 2010

Overheard in an Olympic Pavillion lineup (honest!)

One middle-aged lady to another:

“Let me know if my boob starts shaking and I’ll answer it, ‘kay?”

Posted by: Scott | February 19, 2010

Exploding Pizzas, Sweaty Dogs and Comfort in a Cold Glass

The new ‘Breakfast of Champions’: coffee, chocolate almond milk and Leonard Cohen, of course!

Food has particular meanings and memories for people, and I’m no different. I have recently rediscovered a part of my childhood, one I thought I’d never get back. And just what have I rediscovered? Comfort food, in the form of chocolate milk – or, at least a new twist on the old favourite – chocolate almond milk. Hallelujah! (Okay, I’m really thinking here of the Leonard Cohen song, with thanks to k.d. lang for reminding me of its beauty, but my discovery of chocolate almond milk was certainly a revelation, pardon the pun.)

The origin of this story, as is the case with most comfort food stories, goes back to childhood. My mom, seemingly always aware of my mood, would ask me how my day at school went. My non-committal answer (“Oh, okay”) never really disguised my disappointment or pain, and so in minutes she would prepare for me the near-miracle cure for my blues: a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk. Yum! Falling through the cracks between the cliques at school didn’t feel so bad after a little culinary indulgence. Comfort food indeed!

I know what you’re thinking: you’re reading the words of a depressed, coronary bypass patient-in-waiting, but one need not worry. Lactose intolerance keeps me from overindulging in dairy products, so grilled cheese sandwiches are a once-in-every-few-months treat at best. Yogurt or a small cube of cheese I can handle, but milk or cream – deadly. Further to that, I (try to) eat a largely vegetarian diet these days. Further still, my mom – whose grilled cheese sandwiches simply cannot be duplicated – died three years ago, and I no longer have anyone to spoil me when I’m having a bad day. Lastly, I just don’t have bad days like I used to, and if I do, I write about them instead. It’s very therapeutic.

Anyway, the chocolate almond milk is divinely delicious, especially mixed with a little coffee (an almocha?), which is my real indulgence or addiction. The long and short of it: that chocolate almond milk is a happy reminder of someone sorely missed. Thanks, Mom.

*******************************************************************

Staying on the subject of food, here’s a funny story. For the duration of the Vancouver Olympics, I’m promoting Canada’s non-Olympic public broadcaster to a pleasantly receptive audience Downtown. I say ‘pleasantly receptive’ because if you take on face value the impression left by the private media in this country of their state-owned rival, you would think the public broadcaster with the exploding pizza logo is some kind of alien invader, bent on corrupting our American (oops, I meant Canadian) values. By the way, thanks are in order to private network sports anchor Brian Williams for plugging his former employer on air. “It just slipped out. Honest.” Mm-hmm. It goes to prove some old habits die hard.

So anyway, I’m plugging local news shows and encouraging people to get their faces on live broadcasts, as well as handing out free stuff, in the form of buttons and flags. The flags are really popular, and they have an interesting dual message: one-half statement in patriotism, which Canadians don’t come by easily, and one-half exercise in unabashed self-promotion. (Guess whose logo is on the other side?)

Back to my job. On my second shift, a rainy Saturday night, my partner and I are assigned to cover the corner where a hotdog stand has set up. Apparently, it’s a good location to catch crowds travelling to and from hockey games and concerts. The aroma is difficult to ignore, and I get hungry before I want to be. Guess what I had for dinner that night?

Just before 11pm, the proprietors of the hot dog stand start to pack up. They give my partner a bag of assorted smokies, wieners and buns that they had cooked but couldn’t sell. They tell us we should have no trouble giving the leftovers to some homeless person, if we choose not to eat them ourselves. I’m not that hungry, and my partner is a real vegetarian, as opposed to the oughtabe me. My partner hands me the bag, suggesting I put them in my backpack until our shift is over. After some squishing, the bag of edible gifts is no longer visible to passersby. Smell is quite another matter.

So here I am, conversing with Jane Q. Public about our public broadcaster while surrounded by the distinct aroma one gets from living on a diet of grilled sausage meat. You have to wonder what people were thinking as they passed by. (Good thing Homer Simpson isn’t real or I would’ve been attacked!) I decided to try, as suggested, and give the orphaned meat and bread combos to the first homeless person I could find. As it would turn out, of course, there wasn’t a homeless person to be found in our part of Downtown when my shift ended at midnight. Oh, well. I would have to satisfy myself with imagining the confused look on some homeless panhandler’s face when I gave them the bag of still-warm but sweaty hotdogs.

I ended up putting the bag on top of a garbage can near a Skytrain station where I know some homeless people tend to hang out and headed for home, tired and a little sore from standing on my feet for eight straight hours for the first time in months. It felt good to be working again, employed indirectly (and ironically) because of an athletic-cultural-political institution I had been critical of for months. Yes, I can feel the hypocrisy, but I’ll revel in it for seventeen days, thank you very much, and then everything will be back to normal.

Well, my Vancouver kind of normal.      

Posted by: Scott | January 24, 2010

Just reading the caption, Ma’am.

Caption on pregnant woman’s T-shirt: “It didn’t stay in Vegas.”

Posted by: Scott | January 12, 2010

Smelling the 800-lb. Gorilla…

Last month, I read a discussion about how we tend to willingly distract ourselves to avoid dealing with potentially unpleasant tasks or circumstances, often referred to as the 800-lb. gorilla sitting quietly in the corner of the room. Distractions are perfectly good (for a while) for dealing with post-traumatic stress, but not very useful when you really have to tell your roommate what deadbeat they are. So anyway, I got to thinking about all the ‘distractions’ we oftentimes willingly put in front of ourselves to avoid doing or confronting something else. (By the way, I say this in full recognition of my hypocrisy, for I should at this very moment be attending to another, more important writing project. I just l-o-v-e the art of procrastination, don’t you?)  

The art of procrastination - perfected to a science!

So why do we try so hard to avoid dealing with the 800-lb gorilla in the corner of the room that we all know we’ll have wrestle with sooner or later? Of course, it’s so much easier to turn on the TV and catch up on whichever celebrity has managed to get themselves into trouble this time, or check out how our favourite team is doing. Or, go the mall and engage in some retail therapy. Or just pick up a bottle wash it all away for a while.

But the gorilla’s still there, and there would appear to be a lot of gorillas lurking in the corners of our lives. What do they look like? How about a little Afghanistan, with some Iraq on the side? (Or is it the other way around? Eurasia, East Asia – Orwell must be spinning in his grave.) Here we have a couple of very big gorillas that can also serve as distractions from an even bigger one – like overcoming our dependence on finite resources, perhaps?

How about some others? Let’s see: broken political systems wherever you go; a hopelessly backward economy that rewards the few instead of all; a general unwillingness to notice, much less help, our neighbours; criminalizing homelessness; oh, and ecosystem breakdown, just to name a few. I’ll stop there, just in case you’re already reeling from the thought of wrestling all those gorillas at once, which at some point we’ll have to, anyway.

When we finally do get around to it, we might just realize that those gorillas really aren’t that big and scary after all, and we’ll wonder why ever it took us so damned long to look up from our distractions, however entertaining, and take some kind of action. I just thought I’d remind you (and me) so we can put down the TV remote and let Tiger Woods deal with his screwed-up love life all by himself. I’m sure he would appreciate it.

Posted by: Scott | January 3, 2010

I don’t think I need to explain this…

Sand, rain and hangovers. What do you get? Polar Bears!

Waterwings make for a bold (some might say courageous) fashion statement.

Anyone for a quick dip with some diaper-wearing adults?

What I will say is that some people either a) have a lot of courage, b) are crazy, or c) are too drunk/hung over to care in order to dress up (or down) and jump into mind-and-privates-numbing cold water for something to do on the first day of the year. But, that’s what you get at Vancouver’s annual Polar Bear Swim!

And no, I didn’t go in the water. I didn’t have to. It was sunny over English Bay, but this massive black cloud parked itself over the West End and drenched everyone underneath. If I’d known, I could have waited to have a shower.

Oh, yeah…Happy New Year!

Posted by: Scott | December 21, 2009

Filling the Big Empty Room

“Y-e-a-h, I think I can do this” she says staring up at the ceiling of an empty dining room almost as big as her present-day apartment. She seems to be trying to convince someone not in the room, someone she confides in,

Abstraccident #1

that she’s ready for a big change in her life, and yet she’s not sure herself if “this” is what she really wants. She certainly hasn’t convinced me.

That’s the last scene from a very long dream I had a few hours ago. The dream took the form of a so-called-reality show in which some entrepreneurs, social innovators and maybe inventors were competing for the opportunity to live in a mansion next to a research university, I guess to further their ideas. The woman in question appears to be the romantic partner of the winning competitor; she wasn’t in the rest of the dream. He ends up starting something new, but is this opportunity, this move, the best one for her?

Why am I writing about this? I rarely remember dreams long enough to write them down in any detail. In fact, I’m used to having dreams that for me are just too bizarre or abstract to make any sense at all, so I usually just don’t bother remembering, much less recording them. This dream’s a little different: there’s at least a linear progression of events, even though at first they don’t seem to apply to me. I’m not an entrepreneur, for instance, nor am I currently “involved” with anyone who is. Maybe I just happened to eavesdrop on someone else’s dilemma-induced dream. Is that possible?

Anyway, I started to reflect on the woman’s “big-empty-room” dilemma, and realized it could just as easily be mine. Seven years ago, I jumped in my 30s into a big empty room called post-secondary education. I have no regrets for having done so – it’s been the best experience of my life. (In fact, I’m starting to think university is wasted on anyone under the age of 30. People coming out of high school ought to spend a few years working at some really stupid jobs so they can appreciate the value of thinking analytically, critically and creatively, and how those skills can be applied to making human life more humane. But I digress…) Now, other empty rooms of various sizes appear: genuinely interesting work (hah!); graduate study; keeping up with my writing; maybe travel; maybe “all of the above”.

So what does the ‘big empty room’ open up to: an opportunity, a trapdoor, or a space to reflect on what’s really important? On what might seem an unrelated note, I was watching “Lost in Translation” last night, and I noticed how the vertical intensity of space in Tokyo is captured by the camera, and how the two main characters (both Americans) seemed to look longingly across the city’s expanse from their top-floor hotel room windows. From another angle, I thought that perhaps Japanese tourists like the vast openness of places like the Rockies so much because they out of necessity live in small spaces that challenge their creativity and imagination, and yet have learned to appreciate the space beyond the walls, and the capacity of that space to inspire reflection. A lesson for us North Americans, perhaps? I guess I’d like door number 3, Monty Hall.

If, in my dream I did in fact eavesdrop on someone else’s dilemma, I hope she chose the space, whatever the size, that best inspires her creativity and imagination.

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